Employee engagement

6 Reasons Why Your Nomination Program Isn’t Working

Amanda Cross
April 28, 2020
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Rewarding your employees for a job well-done is essential to employee engagement. As an employer, you are likely trying to find the best way to connect with your employees, thank them for the work they do, and retain great workers.

We know that providing specific feedback and helpful recognition isn't always easy, but it can help you create a workplace where everyone is delighted to work. 🥳

One of the most common ways that companies reward employees is by using a nomination program. With only limited time and budget to run a program, nominations are a popular way to recognize and reward team members.

Nomination programs are an excellent first step, but they have a lot of issues that you might not be aware of at first glance. Are employee of the month awards really a good idea? Let's take a more in-depth look at nomination programs and why they likely aren't the best way to motivate and incentivize employees.

What is a nomination program?

Nomination programs typically allow a group of individuals to nominate an employee or coworker for their contributions or good attitude at a regular interval, usually monthly or annually.

Employees get this recognition by being nominated by colleagues or higher-ups. These recognition programs might take the form of an “employee of the month” program or an award ceremony at your year-end celebration.

At Bonusly, we get a lot of questions about using our program to nominate one person to receive all the points for the month. That’d be great for that person, but... what about all the other employees who also do great work?

The psychology of nomination programs


We’re just gonna say it! Nomination programs are not a good way to recognize your employees. 🔊

Think about it: your nomination process is likely based on some amount of favoritism, even if you’re doing your best to mitigate favoritism!

If your program depends on nominations that are submitted or approved by managers, bias is inherent. Some managers will prioritize recognition more than others, which consequently leaves some employees out of the running.

If not, nominated employees are likely to be in a highly visible role—maybe the team lead of a productive team, or someone who’s at ease presenting at the company all-hands. Managers, higher-level employees, and more sociable, outgoing employees are more likely to win these nomination-based awards.

Which is great! But we know that there are many different working styles that should be recognized.

If you depend on nomination programs to recognize employees, it’s likely that the most “impactful” contributions will be celebrated—the sales rock stars who close the largest deals, the developers that ship the shiniest features. This leaves behind the customer support teams and operations folks who help make it all possible, creating a culture of inequity and exclusion.

So let’s step back to the real reason why we use nomination programs at work: we want to encourage certain behaviors in our employees. You want your employees to rally around the same cultural values that your company mission and vision are tied to.

Reinforcing desired behaviors strengthens organizational culture by highlighting actions consistent with core values. 
–Chief Executive

In order to feel like part of the community and culture, employees need to see how their work fits together, and that they each have an important role to play. This isn’t always the easiest when nomination programs are your only type of formal recognition program.

Here’s why your nomination program isn’t working

Nomination programs may be the default way that companies think about employee motivation and recognition, but just because it's traditional doesn't mean it's the best way.

Let’s consider why your nomination program isn’t working.

Reason #1: Nomination programs can be demotivating to employees.


If you’ve ever been at a company with a nomination program, it’s likely that you saw the same winners, or same types of winners, over and over again.

If you’ve ever run such a program, you probably saw that the same employees were submitting the nominations to begin with!

We typically see that nomination programs may start out strong, but after someone’s nomination doesn’t get chosen for one or two cycles, they stop participating because it doesn’t feel like it matters. Also, in submitting a nomination, you’re actually decreasing your own chances of winning!

And statistically, this feeling is normal—if you’re at a large company, putting your awesome manager or superb support staff’s name in the hat feels like a drop in the bucket.

And if an employee never receives a nomination, they may end up feeling disengaged with their work and unmotivated to go above and beyond for your company, since they're never recognized for their efforts.

Reason #2: Nomination programs don’t give you the best picture of who makes your company amazing

Your company is a complex, beautifully framed work of art. 🖼

If you're trying to sum up your company values with one fantastic employee, you’re missing out on the bigger picture. Context is vital when it comes to building a company culture.

Nomination programs force employees to nominate one individual instead of all the team members that go above and beyond. As a company, you want to understand the details, because details allow you to reward all the employees who make your company great.

Rewarding an employee for closing a big deal is great, but if you’re not also airing that the operations team created a custom slide deck just for that prospect or that this deal was made because of new features from the product team, you’re creating value placements on one type or work over another.

Reason #3: Nomination programs can be time-consuming to implement correctly


Think about it. What do you need to do to implement a nomination program each month? Here are some of the necessary steps that might be involved:

  1. Your employees need to be ready to step up and nominate people.
  2. You need a committee that is ready to read nominations and crown a winner.
  3. You need to spend money on the extra fanfare of making the award special for the winner.

All of these steps are time-consuming for you and your employees. Many nomination programs fall flat because of the time it takes to run them.

An employee of the month programs needs to run every month to be effective, which can cause even more issues when your business is dealing with a busy season. Even one slip-up or skipped month can undermine the program and result in a lack of nominations going forward!

Reason #4: Nomination programs are hard to quantify and set standards for

Nomination programs are known to many employees for being a subjective popularity contest. If you want your program to go above that moniker, you need to do a lot of work to make it as objective as possible.

You’ll need to create specific quantifiers and standards for your employee of the month program. Creating an objective employee of the month program can be difficult, especially if multiple people are eligible to win in a single month.

That’s where things get complicated. How will you decide who wins overall? What if you keep getting the same winners? What your nomination program just becomes a cycle of recognizing the same people?

How do you decide if one nomination is better than another? The standards you set will require that your employees step in from time-to-time. How will you control any biases your team might have?

These are a lot of questions, but these questions are ones that your employees are thinking about, too.

Reason #5: Nomination programs can be plagued by favoritism and biases


Who gets nominated, and by whom? And what’s the approval process, and who chooses the winner?

If it’s the CEO, they’re more likely to nominate the managers and leaders that are presenting their team’s work. Which is great! But it doesn’t necessarily recognize all the employees involved in a great project.

Nomination programs favor the visible.

You could create separate employee of the month awards for managers and employees, but this might also cause issues because there are typically fewer managers, so they'll be recognized more often than regular employees.

All of these factors are bound to make some of your employees feel left out. It might make them feel like your company has favorites, and that they aren't one of them. Your employees notice who is more likely to get nominated, and this disengages them from doing their best work. Why would they, if they’re not going to be appreciated for it?

Blatant favoritism of one star employee can lower the morale of all other employees, as other good employees will likely be aware that their peer is enjoying extra perks while their own hard work goes unnoticed and unrewarded. 
–Edward Fleischman, Fortune

Reason #6: Nomination programs aren’t frequent and timely enough

Organizational and cognitive studies show us that the best and most impactful recognition is timely, frequent, specific, inclusive, and values-based.

Let’s say your team member spotted an error in your presentation, and went out of their way to find the correct data. Even if you nominated them for a reward, it’s unlikely that they’ll receive it soon enough for it to make an impact.

When you only reward employees once a month, like many employee nomination and “employee of the month” programs, this stops those rewards from being tied to specific behaviors and situations. It’s likely that the nominated employees will have forgotten exactly what they were recognized for!

Think about recognition from your employees' perspective.

Your employees likely want frequent feedback, and nomination programs can't give them that. Your employees might be likely to quit or become disengaged before you provide positive feedback through an employee nomination program. It can be challenging to save an employee once they’ve become disengaged.

As we discussed earlier, nomination programs do a poor job of reinforcing positive behaviors. If you want to create a positive experience for your employees, you should aim to give recognition as soon as possible to produce a clear connection to positive behavior.

Why you should focus on peer recognition


If you are looking for an alternative to employee nomination programs, we've found that crowdsourcing peer recognition instead of accepting nominations is the most impactful.

Peer recognition has become one of the leading ways to improve company culture and community at work. Top-down recognition isn’t enough to create a happy and healthy work environment.

Peer recognition allows praise to be specific and in the moment

When we enable peers to celebrate and appreciate each other, they can provide feedback in the moment. Peer recognition can happen almost immediately after an event takes place, and it allows your team to come together and celebrate the people who matter. Since peers know the job well, their feedback and praise can often be more helpful than feedback from managers or higher-ups who don't understand their role.

The turnaround time of a peer recognition program compared to a well-regulated employee of the month program is astounding. You don’t have to have an open period for nominations, your committee doesn’t have to waste dozens of hours pouring over nomination forms, and you don’t have to spend so many hours getting the celebration just right.

Sending thanks to your fellow peers takes much less time than a nomination program. You don't have to think about their accomplishments as grand gestures they've done for the company. With a peer recognition program, you can reward employees for their contributions every day. 🤗

Peer recognition builds company culture and community


While employee of the month prizes breed competition amongst employees, peer recognition builds company culture and community. Employees feel better about themselves, the company they work at, and the people they work with when praise becomes a part of the company culture.

It becomes more about helping each other to help the company succeed, instead of pushing oneself to the top.

By default, you are awarding one person with the "ultimate" monthly award. When employees feel like there is only one shot to be awarded for their work, they either work hard to undercut employees, or they lose motivation to do the work entirely.

Peer recognition gives you the ability to see your silent rockstars

If you use a program like Bonusly to provide peer recognition to your teams, you'll begin to uncover the silent rockstars that are contributing to your company’s success. This data is tremendously important, and it's often lost when you use an employee of the month model.

Since you'll have access to the data of how employees give away their points every month, you'll begin to see those employees you didn't realize make such a difference at work. It might be managers, but more than likely, it's the staff members you least expect getting points and recognition each month.


Here's the bottom line: nomination programs can breed competition and resentment within your workplace. Peer-to-peer recognition is much easier to utilize at work, and it has tremendous results. While peer-to-peer recognition has less fanfare than an employee of the month program, it can be more productive because you recognize people in the moment and on a more consistent basis.

When recognition is an unlimited resource, there's no need to fight over who is the best employee. Your recognition-rich company culture will soon prove that all your employees bring something unique to the table.F

For more strategies on building a recognition-rich and high engagement culture, check out this resource:

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